The 2017 British election was a real duck-rabbit–an ambiguous event that admits two incompatible interpretations, one loosely pro-Trump, one anti-Trump. I’m wary of extrapolating from it to what might lie ahead for the US, but the pratfall of PM Theresa May and the unlikely success of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is too important to be ignored.
The election, in which Theresa May’s Tories lost their majority and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party made its best showing in 20 years, is either a continuation of the populist rage that drove Brexit and Trump; or else it was a 180-degree turnaround from those very trends.
British parliamentary elections are vastly more complex than American congressional and presidential elections. Here are the facts in brief:
- May called a very early election with the expectation of boosting the Tories’ numbers and strengthening her Brexit position. She came to power after David Cameron resigned in the wake of Brexit.
- May’s campaign was notoriously inept and uninspiring. May skipped debates and generally articulated no vision whatsoever save for the promise of more austerity and Brexit.
- The Tories fell drastically in the polls leading up to the election, and lost 16 seats.
- The Tories no longer have a majority, holding only 318 out of 650 seats in Parliament, and will need to partner with Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to have a working majority.
- May is holding on as PM for now but is in a very damaged and precarious position. Another election is likely in the near future.
- Jeremy Corbyn became Labour party leader in a landslide in 2015, trouncing three more establishment candidates. Corbyn’s personal record is far-left, more akin to former London mayor “Red Ken” Livingstone than Bernie Sanders. He is not a fan of the EU or NATO, though his own position on Brexit was sometimes difficult to divine. The extent to which he has moderated since becoming leader is much-debated.
- Since becoming leader, Corbyn has suffered massive defections within his own party, including the resignation of over half his cabinet. He endured thanks to the support of a strong old-school socialist base that reelected him as Labour leader in 2016 after a no-confidence vote. Corbyn is despised by Blair-ite New Labour forces, as well as by most of the press, left and right.
- Nevertheless, Corbyn led Labour to its best showing since Tony Blair’s glory days, boosting its vote share from 30% to 40% and gaining 32 seats. Corbyn’s position is safe for the time being, though the Tories still have nearly 60 more seats than Labour.
- Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) was hammered, reduced from 56 seats to 35. The SNP had accounted for Labour’s near-elimination in Scotland in the 2015 election, where they had gone a mere 6 seats to 56 (out of 58 Scottish seats total). Scotland nearly voted for independence in 2014, and Sturgeon’s platform rested mainly on calls for a second independence referendum, alongside with pro-Europe and traditional welfare state policies.
- In Scotland, the ex-SNP seats were split between Labour and the Tories, with the centrist Liberal Democrats also taking three.
- Nativist UKIP party was annihilated. While they had garnered 13% of the vote in 2015 (winning one seat), they only managed 2% this year.
- Turnout was at a longtime high at nearly 70% (compare with a longtime low of 55% in the 2016 US election). This boosted Labour. Turnout was up throughout the UK except for Scotland, where it was down everywhere save Glasgow.
- The youth vote was very high, and this also boosted Labour. Labour picked up a number of university towns.
So what does it all mean?
Duck Interpretation: the British people voted for Brexit after being manipulated by UKIP and other nativist elements, which were amplified by the cynical maneuvers of Tories like Boris Johnson, who hoped to coast on the populist anger even as they thought Brexit would not pass. With the humiliations foisted on them by Brexit and the loss of faith both in UKIP and the Tories, the British people turned away from movements based on national identity (not just UKIP, but also the SNP, which suffered severe losses to the Tories) and moved leftward, bringing down the Tories somewhat and boosting Labour, but leaving the Tories with a near-majority. The election was a rejection of less established movements, be they UKIP, SNP, or even neoliberalism, and a return to more traditional values of conservative Toryism and socialist Labour, euroskeptical but not nativist. It was also a leftward swing, though not an extreme one.
Rabbit Interpretation: the British people realized they had been sold a false bill of goods with Brexit, and that Farage was a false prophet. They were even more disgusted with Theresa May’s craven attempts to use Brexit to boost her own position, without a care for how Britain would come out of it, and they lost faith in May’s leadership. At the same time, they saw some appeal in Corbyn’s free-education policies and saw in him a break from the detritus of New Labour that they had tossed out with the rise of David Cameron’s Tories. Overall, however, the message was one of disenchantment and disgust. Disappointed by the empty promises of smaller parties, they threw a lot of bums out, no matter which party they belonged to. England dumped the Conservatives for Labour. Scotland dumped the SNP for Labour or the Tories. There was no movement to the left, only a momentary blip of an energized but muddled youth animated by disgust for Brexit and May, as well as Trump. Yet this disgust makes the electorate more likely to vote wildly for the next outsider figure to come around.
The core difference is that the Duck sees the populist rage dying out, while the Rabbit sees it growing. I don’t believe the dispute is resolvable at this time. Rather, I think the history will be created in retrospect, depending on what happens in the next election, which looks to be soon. The complications of British parliamentary politics make it more difficult to determine what gains and losses mean: Labour and the Tories’ gains in Scotland from the SNP mean something quite different than Labour’s gains from the Tories in England.
Regardless, though, both Duck and Rabbit place Jeremy Corbyn at the center of the election, even if neither can decisively explain his success. Corbyn is also a Duck-Rabbit: either he is an old-time socialist who stands for the values of postwar Britain and is a proper heir to Attlee and Wilson (and more precisely, Tony Benn), or else he is the idiot voice of anti-establishment rage who has been elected to destroy Labour as it exists and remake it into something beyond Tony Benn’s wildest dreams. Either he is the antidote to Trump, or he is a manifestation of the same forces that got Trump elected. The difference hangs on whether you perceive New Labour as an evolution of old Labour or as a betrayal of it.
Corbyn’s continued survival is a genuine surprise. Corbyn has established a reputation for inarticulate incompetence and impractical anachronism. I don’t pay enough attention to British politics to determine how deserved this reputation is. I do know that he was reviled by every segment of the press (the tabloids backed May to the hilt), by the national elites, by much of his party, and (when we weren’t simply ignoring him) by America. That he not only hung on but also did better than all the New Labour acolytes is not a fact that can be waved away. It is a fact, however, that will be interpreted in many different ways. Here is one of them, from James “Too Much Democracy” Kirchick:
I am no radical democrat myself. In fact, I am enough of an elitist to recognize that one of the best ways of combating radical populist tendencies is by not publishing editorials like this. Conservative Kirchick is a reminder that the neoliberals’ distaste for social welfare policies and Bernie Sanders is small potatoes compared to the sheer disgust felt by conservative intellectuals for the vast majority of Republican voters. The classic example is Kevin Williamson’s 2016 National Review piece arguing that white working-class communities “deserve to die.” (They didn’t deserve to die while they were voting for Bush, McCain, and Romney, however. Just when they started voting for Trump.) There are clear echoes of Williamson and Kirchick’s disgust for Trump voters in most descriptions of Corbyn’s base of support, just as there were in the caricature of the “BernieBro.”
I don’t say this as any particular fan of Corbyn, and I am skeptical of the extent to which Labour’s gains reflect an endorsement of Corbyn’s own political positions. For now, this doesn’t matter. By remaining in the minority, Corbyn is still spared the challenge of having to put any of his ideas into practice. And the fact that the UK electorate is much more engaged and, believe it or not, considerably more left-wing than America’s makes it difficult to generalize to any joint ideological shift among them. The indisputable significance of Corbyn is in the success of such an unlikely party leader, and his success in spite of the uniform narrative against him. The blame for Trump is frequently put squarely at the feet of Breitbart and Fox, but this is to ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders did far better than he ever could have in the pre-social media world.
Consequently, the British election was not a good moment for national elite overculture. Even though May was widely disliked, the uniform chant of “Corbyn will be a disaster” has caused political punditry to take yet another credibility hit in a time when it is already vulnerable (see: Brexit, Sanders, Trump).
It is another sign that the overculture’s grasp on power and narrative is not what it used to be. It is a sign that social media can prop up establishment-rejected political figures like Trump, Sanders, and Corbyn, even in the absence of mainstream backing. Corbyn may not augur much for America, but his success does signal that our national voice and our national narratives are not as unified, nor as controlled, as they once were. And control won’t be regained by complaining about the alt-right, BernieBros, or CorbynComrades.
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